Book Review: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Posted January 27, 2012 by Heather in Book Reviews / 13 Comments

Book Review: Invisible Man by Ralph EllisonInvisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Published by Vintage on 1995 (orig. 1952)
Genres: Classic, Fiction
Format: Paperback
Pages: 608
Source: my shelves

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Invisible Man, written by Ralph Waldo Ellison and first published in 1952, is a book about oppression and prejudice and their effects on the minds of both the victims and the perpetrators. It is a book about what happens to a person’s individuality in the face of prejudice. The nameless narrator, or invisible man, is a black American and he explains his predicament in the Prologue:

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids–and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination–indeed, everything and anything except me.

And then in the first paragraph of the first chapter:

It goes a long way back, some twenty years. All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was naïve. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer. It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself. But first I had to discover that I am an invisible man!

The narrator’s story starts in the late 1920s or early 1930s in the south. On the day of his graduation from high school, he gives a speech about humility being the secret of progress which is thought to be so good that he is asked to present it again, this time to the town’s leading white men. The men present him with a scholarship to a prestigious black college, but not before completely humiliating him and treating him (and other young black men present) like an animal. In this circumstance he is shown that even though he is given the opportunity for a good education, he is to remember that it was given to him by white men, and that he is expected to “stay in his place” as a black man. It doesn’t matter how smart he is or what he thinks or how he feels. His individuality doesn’t matter–the only thing that these men see is the color of his skin. This is also the first case in which we see how the narrator changes to fit that role, not realizing that he’s doing it for the sake of others.

Over the course of his young adult life–from college and then on to his life in Harlem–the narrator comes up against different experiences that eventually prove to him that the people around him don’t really see him as an individual with complex thoughts and ideas. They see what they want to see (mainly his skin color) and use him for their own purposes–as a replacement for union workers (which leads him to be falsely accused as an anti-union fink), as someone on whom to perform medical experiments, and as a political pawn. In fact, using the word “someone” is inappropriate, when he isn’t necessarily treated as a human being at all. To be human is to be an individual, and when one’s individuality is taken away or ignored, so is their humanity. This is the main way in which oppression is carried out without the conscience of the oppressor getting in the way–if a person’s individuality and humanity are stripped away through prejudice and stereotyping, it is easier for the oppressor to see the oppressed as simple objects to be treated and used accordingly. And the narrator bends and shifts to fit into these roles, all the while thinking that he’s doing it for his own benefit. That is, until the epiphany of his invisibleness hits.

Although Ellison’s book focuses on the black experience in America, bigotry and its effects are a universal experience. People are stereotyped on the basis of gender, religion, race, heritage, and disability, and this can have very negative effects on everyone involved. In Invisible Man, Ellison uses different styles–satire, comedy, tragedy–to show us the potential effects, and he does it very well. This book is incredibly well-written, compelling, and in my opinion, a must-read. I highly recommend it.

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  • I have been looking forward to your post ever since you mentioned you were reading this one. I’m so glad you got so much out of it and agree that yes – by seeing someone as less than human, it does indeed make it easier to treat them as you wish.

    If you’re interested, here’s a rambling post about this book from when I taught it last fall.

  • This book is an absolute classic! Although it has an African-American male protagonist, any person who has felt alienated, isolated or invisible can relate to the many beautifully written passages about identity and voice. Truly, a must read. I enjoy teaching Battle Royal – the episode where he gives his speech is found as a short story in some anthologies – and high school students react to it with such rawness it’s amazing to experience. I was pleasantly surprised to see a review on Ellison’s novel – nice to see attention brought to a well-written and, in my opinion, a very relevant work.

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  • I have always been curious about this book. I will absolutely need to get my hands on this. Your review is wonderful, and I’m glad to read it this morning still moved from finishing The Color Purple last night.

    • I had been meaning to read it for a long time, too. If you haven’t read them already, I think you would also like Black Boy and Native Son, both written by Richard Wright. Thank you for the nice comment!

  • What a wonderful review, Heather! I’ve always wanted to read this but felt pretty intimidated by the fact that it’s a classic. After reading your review, now I know I don’t need to feel this way. I’m going to buy me a copy. Thanks! 🙂

    • Thanks, Vasilly! No need to be daunted–I know that you’ll really like this book.

  • Great review! I picked this book up by accident several years ago (thought I was getting a different book w/the same title) but I haven’t read it yet. I may have to move it up the pile and read it soon.

    • Thank you, Holly! Yes, I’m sure many people confuse it with THE Invisible Man when they first hear the title. I enjoyed this book more, though. 😉

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